The Heart Sutra's talk of "Ignorance", "Old Age" & "Death", the human senses and consciousness, alludes to the Buddha's explanation of the 'Twelve-fold Chain of Cause & Effect' (often called the 'Twelve-fold Chain of Dependent Origination' or 'Twelve Causes') ... It describes how our experience of being a separate "self" arises -- and with it, as its mirror reflection, the experience of a separate world not our "self", coupled with desires, judgments, discontents with that world, feelings of passing time and all the rest ...
I am struck by how the Buddha's idea parallels modern theories of the development of a consciousness and a sense of separate identity in the human infant (such as the model by researchers HERE) ... as the child begins to respond and react to pleasant and unpleasant input through the senses, slowly building a hard sense of "self" vs. "other", driven on by its thirst and hunger and other desires ...
In fact, is our Buddhist practice an effort, in some way, to reverse or return to aspects of living that arose or were lost in those first days of our lives? Are we attempting to recover our original undivided state prior to "self/other" but --this time-- free of the greed, anger, fear, need and lack of understanding of the crying newborn? (That's Jundo's theory, which I propose.)
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Nishijima Roshi has written an explanation of the chain that I will quote here at length ...
Sekishin: What, specifically, are the ‘Twelve Causes?’
Gudo: The ‘Twelve Causes’ are (1) chaos (sk: avida), (2) action (karma), (3) consciousness (vijnana), (4) the external world (nama-rupa), (5) the six sense organs (shadayatana), (6) contact (spasha), (7) sensation (vedana), (8) desire (trishna), (9) grasping (upadana), (10) possession (bhava), (11) birth (jeti), and (12) sickness, old age and death (jana-marana).
Sekishin: To begin at the beginning, what is the meaning of ‘chaos,’ the first of the ‘Twelve Causes?’
Gudo: ... We call it ‘chaos,’ for it is the ambiguous state which is the source of all that is before the mind comes into play, before the mind divides and judges …. At the beginning, nothing is clearly defined or distinguished from any other thing until the mind finds organization therein. Before the mind divides objects, assigning names, distinguishing by characteristics and imposing judgments, there is no figure or ground, no subject or object, no defined relationships of any kind, the whole merging into the whole. This first of the ‘Twelve Causes’ is often referred to in Buddhist philosophy as ‘ignorance’ for we are ignorant of that original nature, seeing only a world of division and judgments, and what there is is very difficult to grasp or understand except by means of inadequate, abstract concepts. And so, in our ignorance, we do not know how to interpret the proper nature of things, we misapprehend this source of our existence, the conditions surrounding our birth. We feel enigma, complexity and an overriding sense of ambiguity with regard to the true state, wherefrom the notion of the person as an individual arises as something separate and apart from the real world, subject from object, ‘this’ from ‘that.’ This process of division by mind into thinking, thinker and discriminated thoughts is the mental process being described in the chain of ‘Twelve Causes,’ beginning with the following of the ‘Twelve Causes’ which is ‘action.’
Sekishin: Are you saying that ‘ignorance’ and ‘action’ are not separate, but combine into a single process?
Gudo: Yes. ‘Action’ really can best be seen as something which combines ‘action’ and ‘chaos.’ We might say that it is human action of the simplest kind, volitional but undirected action like the moving hands and feet of a newborn baby. It is much as the blind flailing about of the tiny baby who, still lacking clear sense of separate self, undirectedly kicks and thrashes amid the chaos of the new environment in which it finds itself. Thus, in the midst of the ‘chaos,’ this movement or ‘action’ naturally arises.
Sekishin: So, in Buddhism, this ‘action’ truly sits at the start of all causal relationships?
Gudo: Yes. ...
Sekishin: And how does this relate to ‘consciousness,’ the next of the ‘Twelve Causes?’
Gudo: ‘Consciousness,’ simple self-awareness, is a function of the workings of the brain, is possessed by each of us. Or, to say it in other words, it is ‘mind.’ It is one of the assertions of Buddhism that this ‘mind’ which each of us possesses is formed and created out of the ‘action’ which precedes it, a sense of ‘self’ much as the newborn infant begins to develop a sense of self, a sense of separation from its environment as its arms and legs flail about amid the chaos, thereby coming to define space and dimension. And as the sense of ‘self’ arises, the sense of ‘not self,’ of the external world, mentally arises as its reflection.
Sekishin: So, that leads us to the relationship of ‘consciousness’ and the following of the ‘Twelve Causes,’ ‘the external world.’
Gudo: Here, ‘external world’ refers to each and every one of the individual things which exist, the multitude of phenomena upon which we have mentally bestowed names and identity ….. In other words, this is the objective world. It means whatever we can grasp with our senses, or if we were to say it in modern terms, it means the ‘physical.’ However, the ‘physical,’ the ‘objective world,’ does not exist independently, but exists in a reactive, responsive relationship to ‘consciousness,’ to ‘mind.’ It is the ‘not self’ reflective of ‘self.’ This is the nature of the relationship between ‘consciousness’ and the ‘external world.’ The existence of ‘mind,’ of ‘consciousness,’ necessarily gives rise to the existence of ideas of an ‘external world.’ But furthermore, the existence of the ‘external world’ necessarily anticipates the existence of ‘consciousness.’ A ‘self’ entails a ‘not self,’ and ‘not self’ requires a ‘self.’ So, there is a ‘co-dependent arising,’ a relationship of interdependent existence, between ‘consciousness’ and the ‘external world.’ In Buddhism, this relationship of mutually dependent existence is often called ‘co-dependent arising’ (jp: engi).
Sekishin: And this connects to the ‘six sense organs,’ the next of the ‘Causes.’
Gudo: The ‘six sense organs’ means the six types of sense organ which receive external stimulation, and refers specifically to eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In this list, ‘body’ refers to the sense of touch, and ‘mind’ refers to the center point of the other senses which integrates all components of the sensory system into a whole. It is through these senses that information on the external world flows into the brain to be further interpreted, details added to our image of the world.
Sekishin: It seems like a very scientific way of thinking about things …..
Gudo: It is. ...
Sekishin: That takes us to ‘contact.’
Gudo: ‘Contact’ means the ‘coming into contact’ of the ‘six senses,’ the six types of sense organ, with the immediately prior of the ‘Twelve Causes,’ the ‘external world’ which provides the external stimulations to the senses.
Sekishin: Which would bring us to ‘sensation.’ What is meant by that?
Gudo: This is ‘sensation’ as in ‘feeling sensations.’ We might also call it ‘perception.’ Just as ‘contact’ is the passive form of one’s coming into contact with the external stimulations, ‘sensation’ is the active reception and taking in of external stimulations, the perception, the experiencing and actual tasting thereof in the contact.
Sekishin: Which then connects to ‘desire’ in some way?
Gudo: Yes. We might also phrase this ‘desire’ as ‘attachment.’ It is our attachment to the external sensations, which attachment and desire are born as a result of ‘sensation.’ Because we now perceive ‘this’ as opposed to ‘that,’ such discrimination leads to likes and dislikes, and the situation of wanting what we desire. This leads then to the next step, our efforts to reach out for what me want …
Gudo: Yes. It is the conduct of ‘grasping’ which occurs from the motive of wishing to acquire and make one’s own, by hook or by crook, the things which are the objects of our ‘attachment,’ our ‘desire.’
This brings us to bhava, the next link in the chain, which is the state of a sense of possessing which arises from that ‘grasping..’ Such reaching out has a result: We do get something, and we develop a mental consciousness of possession and ownership. But this possession refers not only to a simple ownership of things as property, but to a fundamental sense of ‘having’ something, for example, of having our own body and having our very life. We feel that we have our thoughts and ideas, our mind. Because such feelings of possession are fundamental to our sense of being, of having a life, it is sometimes called the ‘process of becoming’ because it leads to the following link …..
Sekishin: 'Birth' ...
Gudo: Yes. This ‘birth’ is ‘life,’ our sense of being alive….. It is our sense of our very lives, of our living born from the foundation of that possession. Thus, we feel that we were ‘born.’
Sekishin: So, in Buddhism, it is thought that the state of ‘possessing’ somehow gives birth to our life, gives rise to our mental sense of being alive?
Gudo: It sounds strange, does it not? In our common sense understanding, it may be hard for us to understand. But, such thinking which places the fact of ‘possessing’ in intimate relationship to life, our human lives ….. such thinking is philosophically of very deep meaning I believe.
Sekishin: And so we come to sickness, old age and death.
Gudo: In life, as the years pass, we all come to sickness, old age and death. These are the solemn facts of life which are to be found as the underside of birth and life itself.
Sekishin: So, the ‘Twelve Causes’ come to a close with this final step of sickness, old age and death.
Gudo: It should not be understood in that way. It is not that the ‘Twelve Causes’ draw to an end with sickness, old age and death, but rather all goes round and connects to the first link, to ‘ignorance’ and ‘chaos.’ In that way, our ideas of ‘life’ and ‘death,’ ‘self’ and ‘not self’ and all the rest are swept up and merge, are wholly absorbed once we fully pierce that vale of ‘ignorance.’ So, we really should view the ‘Twelve Causes’ as constituting a circle, the last going right around to merge into the first. Thereby, it is often called by such names as the ‘Wheel of Causation.'